Vol 6 No. 34 - May 17, 2006

Flats fishing: Looking for the pot (hole) of gold

PHOTO/CAPTAIN RICK GRASSET
Fly angler Jim Elwoldt, from St. Louis, Mo., caught and released this Sarasota Bay "gator" trout out of a pothole while wading a sandbar with Captain Rick Grassett

By Rusty Chinnis
sun staff writer


Fly fishing is a sport that rewards the angler who carefully considers his prey and pays attention to the conditions and terrain that it inhabits.

For anglers who regularly fish the flats, potholes are a prime area where every species of inshore fish can be targeted. They provide an advantage to both the angler and the fish that can be exploited to the angler's advantage.

Potholes are classically defined as clear sandy depressions in grass flats that are devoid of vegetation. One thing they all have in common is a recessed contour that attracts both fish and the prey they feed on. In reality, potholes contain cover to varying degrees. Most are a combination of sand and grass. If you carefully examine them, you'll find sand in the deepest section and grass on the borders. Fish that take up station in these depress ions are often found on the grass perimeter where they are less visible to prey. Quite often, fish will wander between holes, staying just inside the edges or seams. At other times they can be seen right over the sand in the middle of the hole.

Not all potholes are created equal. Some will be almost perfectly round and shallow, while others are oblong and deep. Many of these depressions are man-made, but others are created by tidal action or even scouring by boats. Extreme low tides are excellent for scouting areas to fish. When the bottom is exposed the topography can be closely examined. Look for birds feeding on a flat with potholes. The same food they're feeding on will attract game fish when the flat is covered with water.

Potholes can be fished either from the boat or wading. If the water is clear, fish on a shallow flat can be very spooky. During the winter, gin clear water often necessitates getting into the water for a more stealthy approach. When fishing from a boat, a long accurate cast is a real asset. There will be times when the wind is up and the water is off color, and a cast of 40 feet or less will be all that's required. More often than not, an accurate 60-foot cast will be needed for any measure of success. When poling a flat, both the angler and the guide must be as quiet as possible. It's important to make sure the pole doesn't hit the side of the boat and enters and exits the water without making a splash. Pole extremely slowly in very shallow water as fish are sensitive to the pressure wave a boat pushes.

Many anglers are not aware, but simply moving your feet on the platform can spook fish. Another mistake rookie anglers make is rocking the boat with their casts. When fish are spotted, take time to plan your attack and don't let a high waving rod alert your prey to your presence. Keep the rod low, and behind you so you can launch a quick side arm cast. As you scan the flats and pot holes pay attention to any movement on the periphery of your vision. Fish that are stationed over grass on a pot hole may give their presence away with only a shadow or subtle movement of their mouth or fins.

When wading, a stealthy approach is equally as important. Small flats with pot holes can be completely blown if you motor too close, slam hatch lids, or toss an anchor. Advance quietly, poling at least the last 100 yards to the area you intend to fish. Stake out or anchor well away from the action. Slip into the water and approach pot holes slowly. Move too fast and your body will create a pressure wave that the fish will sense. If the visibility isn't great, or you're fishing early or late and can't see fish, target the edges where grass and sand meet. The edges' "seams" are perfect ambush spots for the predators you're targeting. Start with presentations about two feet outside the sandy area. Make sure you target the deep grassy ends of the potholes. These areas can be very productive and always warrant a couple of casts.

After working the edges of the holes and the seams, begin casting into the sandy areas. Fan the hole with casts to cover them completely and vary your retrieve. If a quick strip doesn't produce, try slowing down and working the fly close to the bottom.

When the water is clear enough for you to spot fish, they will often be traveling between holes. When possible make a cast into the fish's path with at least a five foot lead and let the fly settle to the bottom. As the fish approaches, "bump" the fly to imitate a baitfish or crustacean that has been surprised and spooked by the predator. Fish lying right over sand in a pot hole are the hardest to make a presentation to. The cast must land far enough away not to be noticed and stripped so the fly doesn't approach the predator.

Match flies to whatever forage is most prevalent. Generally speaking use smaller flies and fish them slower in the winter. In the warmer months switch to a larger pattern and work it a bit faster. Patterns with lead eyes like Clousers are very effective in the winter. In the warmer months try flies that mimic baitfish like the "Lefty's Deceiver." Whether you're fishing from a boat or wading make an effort to use the elements to your advantage. Keep the sun at your back for the best visibility and face the action. On an incoming tide fish will naturally stage at the edges of a flat and move into the pot holes and slues as the tide rises.

If the fish are hard to approach try stationing yourself in an area where you have a good view of a pot hole or series of holes. Stay off to the side in the grass where you're less visible and keep a low profile. By staying a long cast away, you can easily see the fish when they enter a hole or pass across the white sand bottom. By just waiting them out, you can target reds, trout and snook as they wander the flat. It's important to be able to land the fly line and the fly softly and don't rip the line off the water for the next cast. Stand still, be observant and make your casts low and slow. It takes patience, but can be very productive.

In most cases there are few obstructions on a flat allowing you to use a light six to eight weight outfit. Lines and leaders can be varied according to the conditions. On a shallow, clear flat use a floating line and a long leader. A twelve foot leader with a thirty pound fluorocarbon bite tippet is standard. If the fish are particularly wary, drop down to a twenty or even fifteen pound bite tippet. When fishing holes with deeper water, (six-eight feet) switch to a 200 grain clear sink-tip fly line with a ten foot leader.

Pot holes on a flat concentrate fish for fly anglers. They provide cover for predators and a way for them to enter and exit a flat. Learn to fish them according to their unique topography, the time of the year, tides and local conditions and they'll consistently provide action to the savvy angler

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